The congressional inquiry into whether the IRS targeted conservative political groups has been a weird story for some time now, and it keeps getting weirder.
Last Friday afternoon — the bad news always seems to be released on a Friday afternoon, doesn’t it? — the IRS told congressional investigators that the computer of the key figure in the probe, Lois Lerner, had crashed in 2011, and as a result two years of emails had been lost. Then, backup tapes that would have preserved the emails were progressively wiped clean as part of a standard recycling program. So, the IRS says, Ms. Lerner’s email box is lost, but it tried to retrieve the emails from other IRS sources and was able to get some of them. Republicans are crying foul; Democrats are saying it’s another ginned up controversy by conspiracy-minded, scandal-obsessed opponents of the President.
Then today the IRS disclosed that the emails from another six IRS employees — including people who Republicans believe were involved in the alleged targeting of the conservative groups — also were lost when their computers crashed. In addition, IRS technicians told congressional investigators that they were aware that Lerner’s emails were lost back in February or March, but waited until now to disclose that fact. The IRS says it tried to retrieve Lerner’s emails, but forensic analysts were unable to do so.
The mainstream press seems to be paying more attention to this story; the articles linked above are from NPR, USA Today, and ABC. I think the attention is warranted, because even the innocent explanations sure make it seem like the IRS follows odd practices.
Lois Lerner was the head of the exempt organizations division of the IRS, not some flunky. If her computer crashed and she lost all of her email, why didn’t IRS computer geeks just grab the most recent back-up tape, download her email box, and restore it to her computer? What’s the point of keeping back-up tapes if you don’t use them in the case of a crash and catastrophic data wipeout? And could the IRS really have computers that are so crappy that seven different employees — including Lerner and the chief of staff to the deputy commissioner of the IRS — experienced devastating crashes that caused them to lose all of their email, which again was not restored through resort to back-up tapes? And if the IRS determined that the emails were lost months ago, why didn’t they ‘fess up immediately rather than withholding the information until now?
Folks, this isn’t a mere political football, it’s a matter of accountability and good practices. If the IRS has ludicrous computer capabilities and poor data practices, we should address that — and if there was some kind of targeting campaign and cover-up, we obviously have a right to get to the bottom of that, too. Congress has a right to investigate the activities of federal administrative agencies, and those administrative agencies — even the IRS — should respond openly, completely, and promptly. It doesn’t appear that that was done here. Why not? It’s a fair question.